The rooftop of the Strand Hotel in Manhattan is a strange place for 50 Cent to throw a party. It’s a nice hotel, but only in the clinical, New Age facsimile of “nice” that you find on the lido deck of cruise ships and lobbies of upscale retirement homes. Here I am, sucking on a purple cocktail next to a fake plant and a man who has a glass eye with a star in the pupil. I am wearing a tie. I am overdressed. Instead of the de rigueur displays of material wealth found in 50 Cent’s music videos—think “I Get Money,” where 50 sets candles in a plate of cash and pretends it’s a birthday cake—the minimal-thread-count tablecloths and hastily G-Unit-ized appetizers (“50’s Sexy Satay”) give the impression that a lot of expenses have been spared to make it seem as if no expenses were spared. I don’t know if I like this party. It reminds me of my prom. It’s supposed to celebrate the launch of 50 Cent’s new record label, but I can’t bring myself to think about music right now. The guy with the glass eye is making me think about death.
50 Cent is here, playing the role of hip-hop mogul that he’s so expertly crafted for himself in the past few years: sipping a drink, making the rounds while wearing a necklace with the diamond-encrusted logo of Street King, his new energy drink. Meeting Mr. Cent happens as if by rote. He and I make eye contact, and we shake hands. I lie and tell him that I think he’s thrown a cool party. He sees through my ruse. In his opinion, the party is just “all right.” He poses for a single shot, and then moves on. He never asks my name.
In four weeks of writing, living, and breathing 50 Cent, this is the closest I will ever get to him. He’s a control freak who almost never grants interviews, carefully guarding his public image as America’s favorite corporate gangster. But I’ve known him ever since I was 13 and my mom feared his music would make me join a gang. My time with 50 Cent lasts approximately 50 seconds. I refuse to believe that this was a coincidence.
In the past year, 50 Cent created Street King, starred in a movie about a college football player with cancer, helped design a line of luxury headphones, dated Chelsea Handler, launched a record label, and released a mixtape. 50 Cent doesn’t need to do any of this stuff: at the end of the day, he’ll go home to a five-million-dollar mansion and sleep in a hyperbaric chamber fueled by crisp, non-consecutive twenties and the tears of a unicorn. If life is a videogame, 50 Cent has already beaten it. So why does he keep playing?
/ / /
In 2009, Swordfish Studios and THQ released 50 Cent: Blood on the Sand, a Gears of War-style third-person shooter starring you as 50 Cent with the rest of G-Unit. Swizz Beats composed the game’s score, which was fleshed out by approximately 40 G-Unit songs. The game takes about 10 hours to beat and was lauded upon its release for being incredibly fun, and insane as shit. That’s not entirely inaccurate.
Blood on the Sand is the sequel to 50 Cent: Bulletproof, which was essentially a 50 Cent album in game form. It was not very fun. Blood on the Sand, meanwhile, pumps you full of fun before a gun even goes off. In the opening sequence, G-Unit and I have finished playing a concert for hundreds of thousands of adoring fans, somewhere in the Middle East. We totally killed it. After dropping the mic, we exit the stage and meet Kamal, the show promoter. I ask for my money—10 million dollars. He says he doesn’t have it. Tony Yayo and I pull guns on him.
It goes without saying, but this isn’t how people get paid in the real world, and this isn’t how much money 50 Cent makes per concert. In reality, rappers are usually paid upfront for shows, and according to DJ Whoo Kid, 50’s tour DJ, he makes roughly $500,000 per show if it’s a special occasion. More often he commands a fee in the $300,000 range. Remember that skit where Dave Chappelle gave financial advice to the Wu-Tang Clan? 50 Cent must have taken the GZA’s advice: “Diversify your bonds, n—ga.” 50’s portfolio is spread across such markets as beverages (in 2007 he sold his stake in Vitamin Water for an estimated $100 million), movies (he regularly produces and stars in movies as a humanized version of himself), headphones (“If I couldn’t find it, I wanted to create it,” he says about his SMS line), and books (he runs an imprint called G-Unit Books and has co-written several titles). Oh yeah, and he makes albums and owns two record labels. And he made two videogames.
Anyway, in Blood on the Sand, 50 needs 10 million dollars and he needs it now.
Unfortunately, Kamal can’t help him out. He does have something “worth more than money.” It is the skull of a sheik’s favorite wife, which he had encrusted with diamonds upon her death. As the player, my bullshit detector goes off, especially because the safe Kamal keeps it in doesn’t actually seem to be locked. 50 Cent seems pleased, however. Between the two of us, he’s probably got more expertise when it comes to appraising human body parts. But regardless of its authenticity, he accepts, because hey, free skull!
Kamal and 50 ride through the war-torn streets of Unnamed Middle Eastern City—seriously, no one’s fired a shot, yet stuff is just on fire—and argue about whether this city is more dangerous than Jamaica, Queens, where 50 is from. In Jamaica, “Maybe 40 percent of people go out and get a job and become regular ham-and-eggs n—gas, but the other 60 percent of us sold drugs,” Tony Yayo, one of the G-Unit members, tells me.
Before he got famous, Curtis James Jackson III was known as “Boo-Boo.” His “50 Cent” moniker evokes a sense of change that he felt he was bringing to the rap game. The name is also an homage to Jamaica’s Kelvin “50 Cent” Martin, the original man to hold that name. About five feet tall, Martin would go up to people and rob them at gunpoint. Throughout his prolific stickup career, he was shot roughly 25 times, killed 30 people, and successfully snatched chains off of both Rakim and L.L. Cool J. He was killed at the age of 23. The 50 Cent we’re dealing with started his career slinging crack. “We was in the streets,” Yayo says. Remade as a rapper, 50 Cent emulated 50 Cent the stick-up kid: He robbed people—of their beats (making his name rapping over other rappers’ instrumentals and having his version make radio before theirs), of their dignity (his song “Wanksta” spelled the end of Ja Rule’s relevance), and through his lyrics (“How to Rob” explicitly detailed how he would rob pillars of the hip-hop industry such as Jay-Z, Puff Daddy, and the Wu-Tang Clan). In that way, 50 Cent conducted his rap career in a way befitting of Queensbridge’s finest.
This Unnamed Middle Eastern City, however, proves to be even worse than Queens. Fiddy’s armored vehicle is ambushed, and his driver shot. It’s terrorists. Fiddy instinctively takes the wheel, stops the car, and starts hoofing it. Good thing he’s been wearing a bulletproof vest since he went onstage. (This is perhaps not far from the truth; Yayo tells me that 50 has boxed since he was young and would beat people up for various reasons. “They fucked up money, or did something wrong, or fucked up a package, or said something wrong…” You know. Big reasons.) After wasting a few terrorists, he discovers he and the skull have been separated. It’s been stolen by a beautiful, mysterious woman. Before he can catch up to her, she throws a grenade at him and knocks him out. She is also a terrorist.
When 50 comes to, he yells, “That bitch took my skull!” This sounds less like a war cry than a bully who’s had his spoils stolen by an even bigger bully. To get his skull back, 50 must take down approximately one million terrorists. Luckily, his pistol has unlimited bullets.
The idea to have 50 Cent running after a really shiny skull in the videogame came from 50 Cent himself. He was on tour in the Middle East—Tony Yayo says that (much like Fugazi back in the day) 50 never says “no” to a concert as long as the money’s right—when he saw the inspirational skull and became enamored of it. It’s not clear exactly which skull he saw, but it’s likely he came across the artist Damien Hirst’s “For the Love of God,” a real-life skull encrusted with 8,601 diamonds.
Though Tony Yayo—and in all likelihood, 50 himself—would never admit it, Blood on the Sand also expresses some much deeper truths about 50 Cent.
It doesn’t take a trip to Wikipedia to know that skulls are highly symbolic objects. Hamlet talked to them. Alexander McQueen threw them on scarves. Dan Aykroyd sold crystal ones with vodka inside of them and made an infomercial explaining how they represent our essential humanity—they seem ancient, but it seems impossible to have made them without modern tools, and many believe they’re a symbol passed down to us from a higher power.
So let’s walk through this again: 50 Cent is refused money, but is instead granted a tangible symbol of his humanity. It gets taken. 50 Cent recognizes that this is something worth ending untold numbers of lives over. Once he’s touched it, he never wants to let it go.
Tony Yayo is vehement when he denies this is what 50 Cent intended Blood on the Sand to be about. He tells me, about five different ways, that the skull represents the G-Unit crew making it out of the ghetto. Though Tony Yayo—and in all likelihood, 50 himself—would never admit it, Blood on the Sand also expresses some much deeper truths about 50 Cent. 50 Cent wouldn’t work so hard all the time if he weren’t searching for something greater than money. Maybe, in his own way, he’s looking for his crystal skull in real life.
Blood on the Sand is exactly the type of game 50 would make. Released in a landscape of shooters such as Call of Duty and Halo, it scoffs at such concepts as “believable environments” and “immersive experiences.” It’s about as believable as the last Transformers movie, and you can immerse yourself in the game about as easily as you can immerse yourself in a glass of water. Instead, Blood on the Sand uses its design to make sure the player has as much fun as humanly possible.
For one, 50 Cent is essentially bulletproof. He can take, like, 15 shots to the body and then hide in the corner and regenerate his health on some Master Chief shit. This makes you feel very much like you’re in a 50 Cent song.
The game is highly point-oriented. You get extra points for yelling “Fuck you!” as you kill people. Also, you get points for just killing people. The word “AMBUSH” pops up onscreen to let you know when you’re getting ambushed; and 50 Cent barely even reacts, because he’s just so in the zone. Again, your pistol has unlimited bullets. Hell, you can even shoot Tony Yayo in the head if you want to, and he just sits there and takes it! You aren’t docked any points. 50 Cent: Blood on the Sand might as well come with a slot to pump quarters into. It literally only cares for your pleasure.
The game is funny in ways that it doesn’t necessarily try to be, too. It’s humorous to watch 50 get shot nine times, only to bounce back and shoot his attackers in the face, because this is what 50 probably wanted to do the first time he was shot nine times outside of his grandma’s house. Even though 50 can zoom through rooms by doing a heroic number of consecutive somersaults, because he does not get tired, he’s still incapable of climbing fences or lifting metal shutters on his own. After one incident where I needed Lloyd Banks’ assistance in opening a metal door, 50 yelled out, “G-G-G-G-Unit!” Lloyd Banks did not respond.
/ / /
The first thing I notice about the office of G-Unit Records is how clean it is. It’s on the 15th floor of a 17-or-so-story building near Times Square in Manhattan. The office is a 50 Cent-centric version of a nice, normal office, with wood floors, a receptionist’s desk, blue walls, and a conference table. Pictures of 50 Cent and his various accolades decorate the hall. The music of various G-Unit artists plays softly over the speakers. The man who greets me at the desk is the guy from the party who had a glass eye with a star where his pupil is supposed to be. I’m surprised his pupil hasn’t been replaced with a tiny little G.
I am here as guest of someone who works in marketing at G-Unit. He takes me to Chipotle and gives me a tour of the office. There’s a studio where Whoo Kid, 50 Cent’s DJ, records a satellite radio show. At the side are offices for marketing, A&R, and general business matters, and on the other side is the Vice President’s office, as well as the office of 50 Cent himself. 50’s not here, so my guide allows me a peek in, and I’m struck by how much it reminds me of my dad’s office—if my dad had a bunch of white busts of his own head for modeling his new line of luxury wireless headphones.
Mega-popular rappers aren’t out there selling crack; and they’re not Dons, calling the shots from some back room upstate like in The Godfather. They’re not even very dangerous. At this point in his career, 50 Cent is basically—as Raekwon the Chef once famously rapped—“The black Trump.” He’s not even corporate thuggin’; he’s just corporate.
So how do you sustain your reputation as New York’s most vicious gangster when you spend your days hawking headphones instead of loud packs? Making Blood on the Sand helps 50 Cent maintain the strength of 50 Cent’s brand. It reinforces the image of 50 shooting his enemies in cold blood by letting you demonstrate it yourself.
One of the cool things about Blood on the Sand is that a member of G-Unit accompanies me on my quest for the skull, like a tour guide. He shows me where to go, tips me to secret rooms where I can smash boxes and find cash, and takes out enemies for me. He also helps me climb walls. Lloyd Banks is constantly yelling, “Get ’em, 50!” and “50, check those boxes over there!” When 50 responds, he never addresses them by name. When it came time to record voiceovers for the game, 50 Cent only wanted to record his lines once, my G-Unit guide says.
His vocals reflect the power dynamics at play within G-Unit—50 Cent is the ultimate boss, the crew’s reason for being; it’s not like the Wu-Tang Clan, where all the members are ostensibly equal; or Dipset, whose subsidiary members have some sort of worth beyond the head rapper. Blood on the Sand wouldn’t exist without 50. Lloyd Banks, Tony Yayo, and DJ Whoo Kid are just other representations of him, a product of his vision.
Later, as I sit with DJ Whoo Kid at the G-Unit conference table, it hits me: This guy has helped me climb over dozens of walls in Blood on the Sand. Whoo Kid has been 50 Cent’s tour DJ for about 10 years. He grew up in the neighborhood next to 50’s—his hood had “some white people,” he says, while 50’s domain was more rough-and-tumble—and spent the mid-’90s DJing for a host of New York rappers like Mobb Deep. The first Curtis Jackson-oriented revelation he offers: 50 Cent used to be fat.
“He was, like, 200 pounds or whatever. A baby ninja or something.” Those were the Boo-Boo days. Three years later, Boo-Boo got shot, trimmed his physique, and made Whoo Kid his DJ.
These days, Whoo Kid hosts a Howard Stern-style show for eight hours every Saturday on Shade 45, Eminem’s satellite radio station. He and 50 have a bit of an odd relationship—he describes their relationship as “brothers forever,” later referring to him as “Jesus Christ”—but 50 tends to fire him on the regular, only to take him back shortly thereafter. “I think I’ve gotten fired by 50, like, 30 times. I always fuck up and piss him off.”
So why did 50 Cent make a videogame? “Somebody gave him the idea.” What kind of person is 50 Cent? “He’s a cool motherfucker. Just don’t get him mad.” How often does 50 play Blood on the Sand? “50 isn’t a videogame guy.” Ah. Whoo Kid tells me to listen to his radio show. “You’re gonna become obsessed with it!” It will have porn stars, he promises. I later learn that, for the duration of my hour-and-a-half-long chat with Whoo Kid, 50 Cent was sitting inside his office five feet away. I’ve never referred to 50 Cent as “Jesus Christ,” but at least he introduced himself to me at a party.
Back to the Middle East. As 50 Cent hides next to a door frame, I spin the camera around to look through the door, expecting an onslaught of terrorists. For the first time in the game, I get a good, hard look at 50 Cent’s eyes. They’re intensely human, almost too expressive—far more human than 50 Cent’s actual eyes, which have a detached thousand-yard stare. What’s weirder is that in Blood on the Sand, 50 never blinks. It’s an astounding pathos generator, and the first time that I’ve felt emotion from 50 Cent.
I’ve never referred to 50 Cent as “Jesus Christ,” but at least he introduced himself to me at a party.
The real 50 Cent seems away from it all. Watch him on TV talking about his energy drink, shifting uncomfortably in his $6,300 suit as the commentator lobs him softball questions about commerce that a three-year-old could answer. He looks like he’d rather be anywhere but wherever he is, doing anything but whatever he’s doing.
But videogame 50 Cent knows what he’s doing. After staring into his eyes for a moment more, I enter the room. It looks like the food court of a mall. Whoo Kid and I are attacked by a gaggle of terrorists. I’ve got the machine gun; I decide to go for it. I rush them, dropping one before I’m standing at point-blank range with the rest. I stab one, yelling, “Take it, motherfucker!” as I finish him off. I take about five shots to the body and my health plummets. I hide behind the fountain and wait to recover. As I crouch, I am shot from behind. I die, and as 50 flops around in a bloody, abandoned food court, I get another look into his eyes. Still human.
Soon after I meet 50 Cent, he leaves his party. 50 Cent probably meets thousands of people per year, having the same two-minute, uninteresting conversation he had with me, but to the crowd, he’s a status symbol. Talking to 50 Cent for two minutes about nothing is one of those moments that you’ll tell your kids about. He understands this, and that’s why he’s willing to meet me at all. He doesn’t like it, but he understands.
Illustrations by Juan Carlos Solon